Winter slumber ending for animals

DNR photo A bear and her cubs are shown in a den during winter. When bears come out of hibernation in spring, they immediately look for food. Although they may be fun to watch, the DNR advises discouraging animals from coming on your property searching for food.

ESCANABA — Warmer daily temperatures and chilly nights are slowly stirring animals from hibernation during spring. Hungry animals seeking out a food source after a long winter can sometimes lead to conflicts with humans — such as bears raiding bird feeders. Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials urge the public to learn what steps to take to avoid attracting hungry animals to their property that could create problems.

The term hibernation is a broad term. A fair number of wildlife are not true hibernators. According to Karen Sexton, wildlife biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources at the Escanaba field office, the majority of animals actually go into a daily torpor. Torpor enables an animal to lower its body temperature, and slow its breathing, heart rate and metabolism. Before winter, they add fat reserves to their bodies. During winter, their metabolism slows and they do not need much food.

“You don’t see a lot of activity from beaver on the landscape, but in reality they’re still awake,” said Sexton. “Their body temperature changes, and they have a stash of food inside their lodges. Beaver do go outside to search for additional food, but the majority of their time they spend inside their lodge.”

Raccoons are more of a true hibernator. They put on fat reserves and den up in a hole. A raccoon doesn’t have a food stash like the beaver and they come out when temperatures increase.

“For the most part they’re a solitary animal, with the exception of pretty severe winters, then they will den in groups to keep warm,” Sexton said.

Bats hibernate in the winter due to lack of food sources, though some bats migrate to warmer areas. They can hibernate in caves and mines.

Black bears are not true hibernators, but go into a deep torpor with a very slow metabolism. Bears can wake easily during this time and will flee when feeling threatened. Typically they emerge in early or mid-spring from dens made in rock cavities, root masses, or trees.

The DNR recognizes animals coming out of their slumber by reports from the public and witnessing carcasses on the side of the road.

“When wildlife begin to move in the season, they find their way to easy food sources,” Sexton said. “They can associate it (food) with homes so we’ll often get phone calls this time of year from the public, saying they have a nuisance — a raccoon, a skunk.”

When animals first come out of hibernation, they may not be their liveliest. This time of year the DNR often receives reports describing animals not behaving normally, or reports of sick animals.

“In reality, the animal is just not all there yet, and they’re starting to scrounge around for food,” noted Sexton. “They’re not in great condition.”

When bears come out of hibernation, they immediately look for an easy food source. A bird feeder is easy for a bear to sniff out and find. One positive experience of feeding from a bird feeder can significantly habituate an animal quickly to the point they look for the same easy food source.

“Folks like to watch those big animals and if they feel safe they tend to watch them too long,” said Sexton. “Just for that short time period … it becomes comfortable, habituated. It associates positive things and so we do our best to share the message to reduce food sources around residences, and if you do see a bear try to discourage it, don’t take time to watch it. In a short time period, a bear, without showing any signs of aggression towards an individual, can do a lot of damage to a home.”

The best way to discourage a bear from property is to bang pots and pans together, making a loud noise. If an animal continues to come around the home, continue to make noise when you see it and be persistent about not leaving food outside. When animals look for easier food sources they can become a nuisance.

“The 2017 and 2018 nuisance bear database shows we received over 45 nuisance bear reports each year,” Sexton noted. “The earliest report received was in the beginning of April.”

Sexton said there have been no bear reports at this time. The DNR have received nuisance calls as late as June.

If an animal continues to visit your property, work directly with your local wildlife staff for additional tips. Do not harass or cause the animal pain. The Escanaba field office responds to reports of animal activity throughout Delta and Menominee counties. Sometimes the DNR can troubleshoot ways to deter the animal with the landowner.

“Some folks that contacted the office need additional help and we’ve issued them lights, like the flashing construction ones on top of barrels. Those have worked good and are discouraging to bears,” said Sexton.

To protect your compost or bird feeder, Sexton encourages landowners to install a single strand of electrical wire, or more if needed. Follow the same recommendations of fencing a garden area. The investment might save money down the line.

“I know that can be a big step for an individual to take, … an added expense for something that should be fairly inexpensive and low maintenance,” said Sexton. “When we live amongst wildlife, we have responsibilities. Particularly if we want to protect our own property. As soon as they become comfortable with you and your home, they don’t distinguish the difference between the compost pile and the tasty flowers.”

The DNR did receive a couple reports of bear moving during the winter. Disturbances at a den can encourage a bear to come out early.

“The den could have flooded out, or the bear may have felt threatened,” said Sexton.

The DNR also receives phone calls regarding migratory birds. When birds migrate they may not find food sources and end up starving.

“We don’t have enough people to run and retrieve carcasses,” said Sexton. “If a person is willing to bring one in, we do take the animal to our diagnostic lab … and contribute data to understand why an animal may be dying in our area. it could produce insight to possible impacts.”

Now is the time to take down bird feeders, early part of April, mid-April.

“A lot of folks are committed to keep feeders up for birds,” Sexton said. “These bears are persistent and can smell a food source from miles away. People don’t think there’s a risk until there’s a bear reported in their area, but in reality the bear can be quite far away, and if that bear smells that food, it’s coming for ya.” said Sexton.